Teaching Little Women at 150

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This year is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. Based on Alcott’s own family and home in Concord, Massachusetts, the novel was immediately popular and has never been out of print. While the novel is a perennial favorite and culturally ubiquitous with multiple film and television adaptations, Little Women is rarely taught in American literature courses at the college and university level. In her newly released book Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux reports that the “Open Syllabus Project,” “a database of texts in all genres used in colleges and university courses,” ranks Little Women at 431. Walden comes in at 31 and Huckleberry Finn at 47.

There are many explanations for why the novel has been overlooked in the canon of American literature that is regularly taught and studied at the college level including its “popularity,” its stigma as children’s literature (Alcott herself called her novel “moral pap for the young”), and its emphasis on women’s lives and experiences–not to mention its length. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for integrating Little Women into American literature survey and topics courses as a core text “students must know if they want to understand the roots of American and women’s literary traditions.”

Little Women, Realism, and Genre

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Literary critic G.K Chesteron claimed that Little Women, published in 1868, “anticipated realism by at least twenty to thirty years.” Chesterton cites Professor Bhaer’s proposal to Jo as an illustration of the novel’s realism. Nether Jo nor Bhaer are idealized or romanticized; both are rain-soaked and unkempt as they awkwardly, yet authentically, express their love and loyalty to each other. While readers today may see the portrayal of the March sisters as overly-sentimental, “[e]arly reviewers almost unanimously viewed the emotions evoked by the novel as ordinary and natural.” Rather than seeing the novel as over-wrought and emotionally manipulative, its original readers saw it as “true to life.” Although Alcott enjoyed writing sensational and sentimental stories, “she staked her literary reputation on her realistic writing.” Indeed, Little Women can be taught as a realistic novel on par with those of Mark Twain, Henry James, and other exemplars of the tradition.

That said, Little Women can also be taught in the traditions of sentimental, domestic, and women’s literature and examined for the ways in which it conforms with and deviates from traditional generic conventions. With its portrayal of four young women navigating the transition from girlhood to womanhood, it could be taught as a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. The depiction of Jo’s literary ambitions and trials, based on Alcott’s own, means it could also be taught as a künstlerroman, a novel of artistic development.

Literary Influence and Adaptations

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Present-day writers as wide-ranging as Barbara Kingsolver, bell hooks, Anne Lamont, and J.K. Rowling have cited Alcott as an inspiration for their literary ambitions. Through the writerly Jo, Alcott has influenced women writers such as Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri.  Little Women has left a mark on American and women’s literature, and studying it in our classes shows students its worth and provides them with an important context for understanding contemporary literature.

The novel has not only inspired multiple film and television adaptations, but several literary adaptations that could make terrific classroom pairings to explore issues of genre, gender, and point-of-view. Joyce Carol Oates’s 1982 A Bloodsmoor Romance is a satirical spoof of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Alcott’s Little Women, and Alcott’s sensational thrillers. Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) re-tells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March and emphasizes the injustices of the Civil War and slavery, both in the background of Alcott’s novel. English Pakastani author Sarvit Hasin’s This Wide Night (2006) re-casts the March sisters as “colonized subjects” after the end of British rule. The novel is told from the perspective of the girls’ neighbor Jimmy, thereby re-imagining the novel from Laurie’s perspective.

Beth Matters!

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I haven’t taught the novel since 2013, but colleagues around the country tell me that their students are noticing and relating to the shy and reclusive Beth in ways they haven’t before. Perhaps Beth’s social anxiety and agoraphobia speak to a generation of students facing emotional and mental health issues; those of us in the classroom have witnessed a marked increase in emotional fragility and sensitivity among young people just in the past few years. The real-life Beth, Louisa May Alcott’s sister Lizzie Alcott, today probably would have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. In the novel, Marmee is more worried about Beth’s “spirit” than her physical health.

Beth’s substance and significance as a character have been overlooked, although it is Beth who voices the most beloved themes of the novel—that family, home, and love matter most. Jo, the novel’s protagonist, changes because of Beth, as Beth’s illness and death prompt Jo’s passage into womanhood and her more serious literary aspirations. The recent BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women on Masterpiece Classics pays much attention to Beth, especially compared to previous adaptations. This is another indication that Beth is receiving renewed recognition as a compelling and vital character, and that the novel continues to speak anew to each generation of readers.

Teaching Alcott’s Other Writing

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Little Women was by no means Alcott’s only literary endeavor. Alcott’s other writing can be integrated into American literature classrooms to introduce a variety of themes and aesthetic and literary concerns. Her short story “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) tells of the Alcott family’s time living at Fruitlands, a utopian farming community led by Alcott’s father Bronson when Alcott was a young girl. It is a satirical critique of the toll that utopian reform takes on women. Because Alcott seriously considers women’s lives and experiences, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) should not be taught without it.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873) tells the story of a woman who seeks financial independence and pursues several career paths including actress and governess. Students relate to Christine Devon’s search for vocation—meaningful work that is also financially remunerative. They are also fascinated by her love interest David Sterling, supposedly based on Alcott’s teacher and friend Henry David Thoreau. Moods (1864), Alcott’s greatest literary ambition, portrays a woman who marries and then regrets it. The novel portrays Alcott’s early crushes on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’m currently teaching it as a major text in my senior capstone on Transcendentalism along with Emerson’s Nature (1836), Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843), and Thoreau’s Walden (1854).

Alcott’s first literary success was Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her work as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. Taken directly from Alcott’s letters home to her family in Concord, Hospital Sketches’s discussions of women’s work, women and war, and women and medicine make it a teaching possibility for a wide range of interdisciplinary and general education courses. That Alcott wrote sensational, darker fiction is well known at this point. My favorite of these stories is based on Alcott’s experience as a war nurse. “My Contraband” (1863) is about a formerly enslaved man and Union hospital orderly who exacts revenge on his former master, a captured Confederate soldier and patient in the hospital. Alcott’s Robert is no Uncle Tom, and the short story is an antidote to the romantic racialism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and other anti-slavery and abolitionist literature of the day.

Men Should Read Little Women

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Perhaps a major factor keeping some instructors from teaching Little Women is its very title and the fact that it is an overtly gendered novel. Women and girls, of course, have always been asked to read and identify with literature written from the male perspective. All too often when making decisions about syllabi and reading lists, we may, consciously or not, consider the male experience as the universal default. Yet over the years, I have found that all of my students—women and men alike—love reading Little Women. Some of the novel’s noted male fans have included Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling.

Little Women passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and Rioux reminds that it is important for boys and men to occasionally, at least, read books about girls, particularly books in which “girls appear as individuals, rather than as extensions” of male protagonists. Jane Roland Martin writes: “Given that the ability to take the point of view of another is a basic element of morality itself, it is unconscionable—I would say positively immoral—to deprive [boys] of the opportunity of identifying with the other half of humanity. . . . How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”

Teaching Little Women at 150 provides today’s students with opportunities to think deeply about gender, genre, literary influence, and the tension between “popular” and classic literature. Its themes and characters resonate with audiences today more than ever, as indicated by several new adaptions, including the BBC/PBS adaptation that appeared earlier this year. A new film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring Meryle Streep as Aunt March will be released in 2019, and an adaptation set in the present day starring Lea Thompson as Marmee will come out later this year.

Have you ever taught Little Women or any of its adaptations? In what classes and contexts? How did your students respond? Do you know of other great resources for teaching the novel? Please leave your comments below!

Select Resources for Teaching Little Women

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Louisa May Alcott. Little Women. 1868. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton, 2004.

Along with the novel itself, this edition includes contemporary reviews and relevant cultural and literary contexts such as excerpts from Pilgrims Progress and Alcott’s sensational fiction.

John Matteson, editor. The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Norton, 2015.

This edition includes a scholarly introduction and annotations, including a nineteenth-century recipe for pickled limes!

Anne Boyd Rioux. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Norton, 2018.

Rioux’s book is a “must have” resource for teaching Little Women. Her chapters on Little Women’s literary and cultural influence and its portrayal of female development are excellent lecture and classroom resources.

Elaine Showalter, ed. Alternative Alcott. Rutgers, 1998.

This volume contains many of Alcott’s lesser-known works cited in this blog post, including Hospital Sketches, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Work: A Story of Experience, and “My Contraband.”

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The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning

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The texts for my honors, learning community, and writing courses.

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall. Yes, I was part of the decision making process. Yes, I advocated for many of the books on the menu.

“Memory and Revision” is the loosely conceived theme of the fall honors course. The last time that I taught the course I imagined it as “History and Revision.” I tossed in Hamilton and The Female Review to augment the books I selected from the menu curated by the committee. (You can read more on teaching The Female Review with contemporary texts here.) These texts would still fit the theme. This time I wanted to use more contemporary texts.

My last honors class was a weird class. The students knew it was a weird class. We spent a lot of time on the things I knew best, but flew through things I wasn’t all that familiar with as a teacher or a scholar. It wasn’t a bad class, but it was off. I’m not saying the day-to-day functioning of the class was off. The texts fit together because of the theme. It was just weird. The students were troopers and helped the class work, too. Once we were all comfortable with each other we talked about the seemingly weird choices. I should have done that the first week of the semester.

This semester might be a weird mix, too. The texts themselves aren’t weird in the sense that Brie Jaquette wrote about here, but the pairings are weird. So, what is on the docket and why? Join me on a journey through this semester’s Field of Reads.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is the summer reading. Students are asked to read this book over the summer, which I guess they will do. This text is common to all the honors classes. I advocated for the book during our meetings. Why? It was the shortest book; it was contemporary; it also seemed like the best option for students to read without any guidance. I was told it was a book that young folks often enjoyed reading. Other instructors pointed out that it worked well in class, too. I listened to an Audible version and absolutely loathed it. We’ll spend a week or two on the book at the semester’s start.

Fences and Radio Golf by August Wilson

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Book Ends: A desk copy and a personal copy

I read Fences a long time ago. I saw a production of Fences a long time ago, too. I’ve never seen or read Radio Golf. These two texts are from the menu of common texts. I advocated for the inclusion of these texts. My last three years in Pittsburgh have shown me that students don’t really know much about Pittsburgh. Many of them aren’t from Pittsburgh. Many of them claim to be from Pittsburgh, but are from suburbs or communities a good distance away.

In today’s Pittsburgh many students don’t know the history. The Pittsburgh of today hides its old self, and its long-standing problems, behind its new, glossy image as a forward-moving tech-driven city. It’s a lie. The problems Wilson addresses in his plays remain for many of Pittsburgh’s citizens. You can stand on the campus where I teach and see the legacy of Urban Renewal. You can see the interstates cutting through the downtown. You can see the luxury apartments. The food deserts. It’s all there. I advocated for Wilson’s work because the problems he details are still here in this city, even if they’re masked to many college students behind a sleek office buildings and the glossy university ad campaigns extolling the virtues of going to school downtown.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

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Books of the Dead

This book isn’t part of the menu of books selected by the committee. The inclusion of this book is all on me. Rukeyser’s long poem details the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster and its aftermath. I’m including this book for many of the same reasons I advocated the selection of works by Wilson. Pittsburgh, of course, isn’t far from West Virginia, but West Virginia seems worlds away from Pittsburgh. I selected this text because it highlights the relationships between workers’ rights, the environment, issues of class, and issues of race. Rukeyser’s approach in The Book of the Dead fits the theme of history and memory—or memory and revision. Rukeyser’s poem is about many things, but I think justice, or more accurately injustice—or justice denied, is one of the important themes. I’m excited about including this text. I’m drawn to Rukeyser’s work because I love the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

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Book of the Dead of Hori, about 1969-945 BC; Cleveland Museum of Art

Rukeyser riffs off of  the ancient Egyptian text throughout her poem. I’ll be using the recently published edition of The Book of the Dead from West Virginia University Press. This new edition includes an excellent introductory essay by Catherine Venable Moore. (Read more about this landmark publication here.) As part of the unit on Rukeyser’s poem, we’ll take a look at some applicable passages from the ancient text that inspired her. Still, like the works by Wilson, it is an odd pairing with Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth and Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz

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This novel rates Aten out of Aten

These novels by Naguid Mahfous aren’t from the menu of committee options. I selected these texts based on the history/memory/revision theme. I also selected these works because they are contemporary texts. Plus, I thought these texts would be a nice pairing with the Egyptian themes in Rukeyser’s poem. There was also that stray email I received announcing that the Middle East as a theme this year for my university. Akhenaten tells the story of the heretic pharaoh of the same name through the perspectives of individuals that knew him. It certainly is a text that fits the theme of revision since each of the characters recount the reign of Akhenaten from their own perspective. It is also one of the few texts that I’ve actually read. I read this years ago when I was seriously considering becoming an Egyptologist. It was the summer going into my sophomore year of college. If you can’t tell I still like Ancient Egypt.

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A journey of 5000 years: From Narmer to Sadat.

The other book by Mahfouz, Before the Throne, covering nearly 5,000 years of Egyptian history, plays out through a tribunal before the court of Osiris as he and other gods of the Egyptian pantheon examine Egypt’s leaders. I hadn’t read the book until this summer, but I figured the book would fit the theme. I also see Before the Throne, with its invocation of a courtroom drama, as a fitting pairing with Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, especially because of the testimonial intertextuality of the poem. With these last three pairings we loop back to the theme of justice, too.

Let’s Get Weird
On the first day of the semester I’m planning on doing Abigail Burnham Bloom’s “First Paragraphs” activity from The Pocket Instructor: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom. (Read Shelli Homer’s review of The Pocket Instructor here.) In this exercise, students are presented a handout with all of the first paragraphs from the novels assigned for the semester. The activity serves as a way for introducing the texts and course to students. Plus, it is an activity that gets students (and the instructor) away from the standard go-over-the-syllabus-day. The activity provides an opportunity for students to meet the texts, ask questions, make connections, and start thinking about close reading.

Not Feeling So Weird
I’m about to email the book list to the students enrolled in the honors course. That soon-to-come email is the occasion for thinking about my weird class. I started writing this post because I wanted to explain my weird class, I guess, to myself. The summer is a long break between placing a book order and writing a syllabus. One can forget a lot about the solid choices that inform a book order.

Weigh In
Anubis says: Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts! Detail of a coffin at the Cleveland Museum of Art

A thousand words later and I feel a lot better about my weird class. Does your class feel weird because it needs to fulfill programmatic expectations or include texts from a menu curated from a committee? How much do you share with students about course planning and the choices that you make? We’d love to hear from you! Weigh in with a comment below or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook!

All photos by the author.